Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Don't Expect a Safe, Humane Orleans Parish Prison Any Time Soon; Here's Why

Willie Lee, 40, died last month in Orleans Parish Prison, probably the worst jail in the country. He was awaiting trial on charges of breaking into neighbors' apartments and causing property damage. He got into a fight at the jail, collapsed 10 minutes after it was broken up, and was pronounced dead two hours later.

The coroner's report was uninformative in what it listed as the cause of death: "cardiac arrest." Everyone dies when his heart stops beating; the question is what caused it to stop. Silence from the jail so far on that score.

The prison is too large; it's understaffed, and it's filthy. Medical and psychiatric care is terrible and prisoners live in fear of being beaten or raped. In 2012 there were 600 ambulance runs to the emergency room, with far more than half of them related to violence. The rate is up so far in 2014. A comparable jail in Memphis had seven ER runs associated with violence in a year.

In 2013 federal Judge Lance Africk found conditions in Orleans Parish Prison unconstitutional and wrote that they left "an indelible stain on the community." He now has jurisdiction over the jail as a result of a federal consent decree, an agreement between the sheriff, the prisoners who sued, and the U.S. Department of Justice. It requires wide-ranging reforms.

Federal law does not permit the judge to close the jail, or even transfer prisoners out of it. And yet conditions are so bad it's likely to be years before reforms can be completed. In the meantime, the prisoners must try to survive in conditions that the federal court has already declared unconstitutional.

This dilemma stems from the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, a federal statute passed in 1996 by a Republican Congress hostile to social reform through litigation. No matter how much a federal judge wants to clean up a local jail, the statute drastically limits the tools available for doing so.
This was evident in the hearing on the sheriff's lack of compliance with the consent decree that Africk gaveled to order three days before Lee's death. The tension between what needs to be done and the limited power of the court surfaced repeatedly in exchanges between Africk, a cautious jurist, and Harry Rosenberg, the quirky private lawyer who represents the City of New Orleans in its fight with the city's jailer, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, over how to manage and finance the reforms.

If Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney, were a baseball player, he would steal second base by limping to first after drawing a walk, thus tricking you into believing he couldn't run. His act begins with his hairdo. Imagine Larry of the "Three Stooges" grabbing the globe of a Van de Graaff generator and static electricity sending foot-long tresses straight back into the air from his receding hairline.

Read more >> http://thelensnola.org/2014/04/02/plra-the-reason-not-to-expect-a-safe-secure-orleans-parish-prison-any-time-soon/

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